1.What Is It?
Electrolytes are essential minerals that are found in the body. To be more precise, you will find electrolytes in blood, sweat, urine and in almost all fluids in the body. From a more scientific point; electrolytes are particles that carry either a positive or negative electric charge. There are many different electrolytes that we have in the body. In their original form, these electrolytes start as minerals and only become electrolytes when dissolved in a fluid.
2.What Does It Do?
Electrolytes that you will find in the body and their role within the body are:
Sodium – Responsible for fluid retention and uptake
Potassium – Responsible for muscle and nerve function
Magnesium – Responsible for muscle contraction and nerve function
Calcium – Responsible for muscle contraction and nerve function
Chloride – Responsible for fluid retention and uptake
Phosphate – Responsible for muscle contraction and nerve function
Iron – Responsible for oxygen transport in the blood
Zinc – Responsible for exercise metabolism
Copper – Responsible for blood health
Manganese – Responsible for metabolic energy production
As you can see, there is a bit of a theme towards the function of electrolytes in the body. Hydration being the main function as well as supporting nerve function and muscle contraction. Let’s have a more in-depth look into these functions.
Hydration, Fluid Retention & Uptake
Hydration is the bodily process of maintaining the correct amount of fluids and electrolytes within the body. Not more, not less, just the right amount of fluids to find that balance of fluids in vs fluid out. Dehydration is when the balance of fluids goes in favor of fluids out and the fluids in can't be matched. As little as 1 – 2% loss of body fluids can cause significant declines in physical performance, this is why hydration is such an important aspect for all athletes.
Fluid and Electrolytes work hand in hand to maintain this balance of hydration in our body. There are an infinite amount of lifestyle factors that can and will affect the bodies hydration level. Each and every time we go over or under our sweet spot of hydration, our body works as hard and as fast as it cant to make the necessary changes to get the body back to the perfect hydration level.
When we train, exercise or just be active, we sweat. When we sweat we are not just dripping water from our bodies, there are electrolytes mixed in that fluid. Ever looked at a top you wore for an intense workout after the sweat has dried? That white-ish residue left are the electrolytes that you sweated out. This is why it is so important to not just drink water but also get back in the electrolytes lost through sweating.
Muscle Contraction & Nerve Function
A muscle will contract when we tell it to, okay okay, it may not be as simple as that but if you break it down to the bare basics, that is how it works. If we try to pick up and item that is heavy, nerves in our body send signals back to our brain with the message of this item is heavy, we need more help. The brain then sends all the messages out to the necessary body parts and muscles to let them know we need their help and, once the right amount has been recruited, you will then have the necessary strength to pick the item up. Our body does this process is microseconds, all day, every day, 24:7.
Electrolytes are particles that carry an electric charge within the body. These electrolytes help maintain the necessary balance of fluid within the body to help carry these nerve messages (impulses) throughout the body. If we don’t have the correct balance of fluids and electrolytes we will not be able to pass these messages throughout the body and thus will affect the bodies ability to contract muscles. This is also why people turn to electrolytes to help with muscle cramps, it all ties into the impulses being able to be transmitted throughout the body.
Electrolytes main function may be to help maintain a balance of hydration. But it's what that balance of hydration does for our body, day in day out, is what is really impressive.
3.How Much Do I Need To Take?
There have been many studies looking at the effects of electrolytes at different dosages and in different scenarios. While some studies have tried to claim recommended dosages for electrolytes, there are too many factors to simply through a number and say, this is how much you need.
Some of the factors to consider when trying to calculate what amount of electrolytes you require are:
Your Body Weight?
Your Muscle Mass?
The Environmental Climate?
Previous Nights Sleep?
Food Consumed in the Last 24 hours?
and of course, Fluids Consumed in the Last 24 Hours?
These are just SOME of the factors that play a role when considering our hydration and electrolyte requirements. As you can see, there are a lot of things to consider when you are trying to look into your hydration and because of this, we are unable to put a number down.
So how much should I be taking? If you are a person who doesn't train, doesn't exercise and isn't active, then you don't need to worry about consuming additional electrolytes on top of what you consume through your daily diet. However, if you train, exercise or just be active in your day to day life, you should be consuming some electrolytes around that time of being active. Just remember that whenever you are sweating, it’s more than just water being sweated out that needs to be replenished.
4.When Do I Take It?
Utilizing electrolytes around anytime you are being active is key to get the most benefit out of them. The question then is, do I take electrolytes before, during and/ or after exercise? Let’s break it down for you.
Electrolytes Before Exercise
Probably the least likely time people would consider taking electrolytes but it could be the most beneficial. More commonly the thought of consuming electrolytes during and after exercise has been the way to go but the idea of priming your body with them before your train makes a lot of sense. When you are exercising your body puts digestion and absorption of nutrients as one of it’s lowest priorities in bodily functions, it’s busy focusing on performing as hard as it can for you while you exercise.
Because of this anything we consume during our training/ exercise probably won’t be utilized until we finish our session and our body can re-prioritize that digestion and absorption. Consuming electrolytes before we start exercising will allow our body to digest, absorb and then put the electrolytes to work within the body ready to be fully utilized as we train.
Electrolytes During Exercise
I know we just said consuming them during exercise can potentially be pointless BUT there are exceptions in this case. Firstly, the duration & intensity of your exercise is a big factor here. If you're training in the gym for 1 – 1.5 hours, and at a fairly high intensity, then during exercise electrolytes may not get a chance to work. However, if you are training for over 1.5 hours, in particular, endurance events, then electrolytes are crucial to help replenish and replace what you are using while you are training.
Ironman athletes have been known to lose 1 liter of fluid per hour of exercise and of course, there are electrolytes being lost with the fluid. It is crucial for endurance athletes to get in those electrolytes as they are exercising to maintain hydration and to then maintain their performance for the duration of their exercise.
Electrolytes After Exercise
The final method of utilizing electrolytes is consuming them after exercise. This is possibly the most commonly used method of electrolyte consumption and the theory is pretty straight forward. During exercise you sweat, with that sweat you lose electrolytes, now that the exercise has stopped it is time to replace the lost fluids and electrolytes, and that is as simple as it gets. Water alone will not be able to fuel the body to replenish and recovery from exercise without the help from electrolytes, we need to replace what has been lost throughout training.
5.How Long Does It Take To Work?
As we mentioned above there are a few different times to consume electrolytes and with these different times come different digestion and absorption rates. Consuming electrolytes during the day, before exercise and also after exercise will yield the fastest absorption, and therefore, the fastest rate of electrolytes going to work in the body. In as little as 15 – 30 minutes after consumption electrolytes can be going to work and being utilized.
The exception to this is rate is when they are being consumed while exercising. As we mentioned above, the body doesn't prioritize digestion and absorption of nutrients while we are training. Because of this, the rate of digestion is slowed down considerably and the electrolytes may not be absorbed/utilized until after the exercise has finished.